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Blog: Humanist Voices

Human rights watch 2014The Human rights Watch report is a useful but limited document. Its usefulness consists of raising the profile of human rights abuses around the world. But that usefulness can amount to little if the media doesn't report its findings or governments aren't compelled to act on its findings. Its limitation concerns its scope, the parameters of which are subject to debate. Too narrow a conception of human rights and the document sacrifices relevance and significance. Too wide and the concept of human rights itself becomes jeopardized by over-broadness. Nevertheless, the Human Rights Watch report of 2014 offers a vital glimpse into the state of human rights.

The complete report, covering 90 countries, can be found here.

 Highlights of the report include:

Executive director Kenneth Roth's belief that the international Responsibility to Protect norm[1], which paves the way for international intervention in cases of "mass atrocity crimes," still has legs.

The "abusive majoritarianism" of nations like Egypt and Burma that hold elections but otherwise have "feigned democracies that reject basic principles."

The legal and morally questionable use of drones by the United States. "...civilians have been killed unlawfully...without any US inquiry or known compensation to the victims or their families."

Two new treaties to protect rights: The Domestic Workers Convention, designed to tackle a problem that afflicts many millions globally--abusive, unsafe, exploitive and hazardous working conditions; and the Minamata Convention on Mercury, which aims for a maximal reduction in the use of mercury, and includes a slate or provisions that are intended to protect the human right to health. The text of the Convention can be found here. 

Tomokos hand

(Described as one of the world's worst environmental disasters, the Chisso Corporation dumped methylmercury into Minamata Bay Japan from 1932-1968. Thousands still suffer from its effects.) 

The report's section on the United States underlines problems well known to any observer of the American scene: Harsh sentencing and over-incarceration; racial disparities in the criminal justice system; US drug policy, which a number of reformers have referred to as a "harm maximization" policy; abusive prison conditions like rape, and solitary confinement, which is "considered ill-treatment under international law and can amount to torture"; weak labor rights law and enforcement causing systemic harms to health; the refusal of some US states to grant greater access to health care; mistreatment of women in the armed forces; and more.

One of the worst countries human rights-wise right now is Syria, whose conditions HRW executive director Kenneth Roth refers to as "abysmal." What would a world look like that prioritized human rights? What would a world look like that disallowed human rights abuses anywhere? We don't know, since we don't live in that world. But we could. Will any politician currently running for office have the vision to help bring this world about?  We should be making demands on them.

There are some pessimists who deny or downplay claims of human progress in the 20th century and the first decade or so of the 21st. Sure, we have an economic system very likely running us into resource overshoot bottlenecks and cascading environmental catastrophes. Our species is proving itself tragically incapable of responding with intelligence to the climate emergency. Discredited secular and religious ideologies and practices grow more oppressive the more they come into contradiction with the realities of nature and the increasing but realistic expectations we have for human life on this planet. The poor are nearly invisible in US political culture, even though more and more of the middle class is being shanghaied into its ranks by a morally bankrupt neoliberal orthodoxy to which political elites reflexively acquiesce. 

Despite all this and more, in my view the case for progress is secure (for now!), however halting and despite branches of retreat. 50-60 years ago in the US we had a virtual caste system based on race, gender, religion and sexual orientation. Attitudes and values have broadened considerably, allowing unprecedented individual freedom. Though too meager, there are signs of a global awakening that's post-national, secular, progressive, highly attentive to environmental and universal values, and has put many mistakes behind it. Still, blind and oppressive forces of all types need to hear a klaxon voice of resistance.


[1] 1. A state has a responsibility to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing.
2. The international community has a responsibility to assist the state to fulfill its primary responsibility.
3. If the state manifestly fails to protect its citizens from the four above mass atrocities and peaceful measures have failed, the international community has the responsibility to intervene through coercive measures such as economic sanctions. Military intervention is considered the last resort.

-Eric Snyder


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